The Experience Design of Ragas

For most people, vibe is important. Ambiance is another term some like to use. But overall, people enjoy and pay more for an immersive experience. This has been central to the new improvements in the entertainment and media industry. The design industry has also found itself talking more and more about experience of using and interacting with a product or a service. People now have things which communicate with sight, sounds, touch and smells and almost everyone is exploring ways to set the perfect mood for an experience – whether it is for long lasting emotional design or planned obsolescence, all are aiming for an experience that goes beyond the product/service itself.  At its core, it is about making things more immersive. New fronts are emerging as we find relationships between sensations, sensors and technologies. But the number of augmentations really do not determine the quality of experience, this is often neglected and misunderstood. This is the reason why we often hear things like, ‘bad sound’,  ‘bad lighting’, ‘three dead in a pyrotechnic accident’; or we see a restaurant with lighting that makes the food look like crap and a lounge where social interaction is expected but the music prevents it.

For music, what was once a simple equalizer dancing within the confines of a screen (initially a utility of monitoring sound levels for different frequencies) has now mapped to low-cost smart lights in one’s living room for the parties. Up the budget for a concert and you have something grand yet similar, but it is tailored for the venue and the performer (smoke, confetti, water cannons, flames etc.). Things are also changing with VR, where listening to a song could also mean being the protagonist in its music video.

With all that said, I want to talk about something old.

I cannot help but think of Hindustani classical music in the context of experience design, and more specifically the concept of ragas. Even though there is lots to discuss about the rituals, instruction and hierarchies, all of which I know nothing about, there is something about the entire system which is very organic and sophisticated. The people who framed these rules knew that it was not just about the music (product/service – depends on how one looks at it) but the entire experience. Ragas are, by design, an immersive experience rather than a simple set of notes to improvise along with. Traditionally, ragas are to be performed at a particular time of the day and even have appropriate seasons designated for their performance. This is probably an early example of where entertainment was designed with the environment in the mind. It had to reflect back, through music, what the environment presented; and given the absence of technology at that time, a master performing a raga at the correct time and season would have yielded a mood that is really difficult to recreate with all our screens, smoke, flames, sprays and amplification. Among these, amplification is an interesting tool as its presence or absence also raises questions like – should an audience beyond a certain number really witness this performance? Would architecture across the world evolve differently if we had access to modern amplification methods? Would that have also affected the instruments we have today?

As Western music took the main seat in the world, the ambiance of entertainment was now sourced in the replication of concert halls which was only made more colorful with open air stages etc. The music too has distanced from the nature worshiping pagan traditions, and is now a projection from man on to his environment (the western approach where man is at the center of his reality – a closed-in approach which I feel was guided more by the climate than philosophy or religion) – it became important to create and impose the vibe rather than let it come in from the outside. Even the western instruments had to eventually mic into modern amplification to cater beyond what they could deliver by themselves and the spatial acoustics. And with all the tech, attempts are rigorous to subconsciously guess at and recreate the conditions that might best complement a song. The right answer perhaps will come when we open our senses to the world before applying our sensors to it.

Sabse Bade Bhaisaahab

It did not take much for the truth to come out, only a mere twelve years even when it had always been present. What was more shameful than Salman Khan strolling out of the court after driving over a few people sleeping on the pavement was the support he got from his fans all along. Money had obviously influenced the Indian Judicial system like it always does but fame and popularity had also blinded the masses against a person’s proven misdeeds. He had accidentally killed one of their own and still these men cried and whistled when he briefly appeared and waved at them from his balcony. Celebrity worship took a new low when people started taking the effort to justify his actions. The shamelessness with which witnesses were bought off, evidence bent and the denial still running strong at the end of it was not only appalling but also a lesson about how in this country, you are a God if you make money by entertaining the lowest of the low.

Some defenses which the fans had were that Salman Khan is a great philanthropist and a helpful soul, his good deeds should sort of ‘cancel out’ his mistakes (and crimes) etc. It is true that Salman does a lot for those close to him and beyond but that has never been a legit defense in the court of law. What is surprising is that these defenses mostly come from the well-educated hard working subset of fans who usually support the correct issues (some sane voices have discussed this problem). It is great to see these very people use the tool of inductive reasoning in the way which really makes one tear up and break into a slow clap for their forefathers who fought and survived to see their collective genetic perfection stand up, sit down, log in and type this. They are still not paying enough importance to the fact that a man died because of him! All I have is a message for them: ‘Just imagine yourself on a fine evening walking down a pavement back from work with those glorious ideas behind that pretty face of yours. In your life, you hold value in some people’s eyes and you do not want to disappoint them or yourself but then, out of nowhere, an SUV swerves in and crushes you into a stew on the pavement. Your blood and bones crust up like pizza toppings before the cops arrive. Your entire life and its worth is summed down to (maybe) 50000 INR and your ageing parents don’t have the will or the money to fight this superstar whose twitter feed looks like a slambook of a fifteen year old. And then in the end he walks free.’ This sounds like a perfect plot for a Salman Khan movie with a social message! Wait… what?

We must get this simple thing straight – Salman made a mistake and he should be punished for it like any other citizen of this country. Or maybe I want to live in a world which is too far to reach or too deep in my dreams because here in the real one, some animals truly remain more equal than others. But even if, say, in a distant future should I forget this hit-and-run case, I would never forget Jai Ho. I am sure that I would be diagnosed with cancer anytime in the future just because I watched this film. For that if not for anything else, Salman Khan should definitely be hung.